Jul 24, 2021

Axios Deep Dives

Good afternoon and welcome to our Axios AM Deep Dive on the Tokyo Olympics.

  • This edition is led by Ina Fried, who's in Tokyo, plus managing editor David Nather and Kendall Baker, who's covering the Games every day in his Axios Sports newsletter. (Sign up here.)
  • You can catch Ina's audio reports from Tokyo on the Axios Today podcast.

Smart Brevity™ count: 1437 words ... 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Behind the scenes at the COVID Olympics

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Axios' Ina Fried reports from Tokyo ... Athletes at the opening ceremony were clearly visible on TV with masks below their noses, but an athlete tells Axios that the COVID rule-breaking was going on well before that.

  • It's been happening at least since athletes arrived in the Olympic Village, where masks were dropped below noses and different teams were forced to share buses.
  • Even the official plan includes risks — via both flights to Tokyo and shared dining facilities, where people of course are unmasked.

Why it matters: Organizers insist the Games can be safe for both the athletes and the people of Japan. But fear persists among athletes, in part because the precautions are both insufficient and not always followed.

  • Journalists, who've also been known to drop their masks, crowd onto official buses to get from one approved location to another. Several told me they think there could be a significant outbreak.

Zoom out: It's entirely possible — and strongly encouraged — that Americans and other foreigners at the Summer Games will go their entire stay without encountering a single Tokyo resident besides Olympic volunteers.

  • I've been here since Tuesday, and the only Japanese people I've interacted with personally are the people in my hotel and those who helped me get from one pre-approved location to another.

For most residents of Tokyo, the only tangible thing they're getting from the Olympics is the bill, if not an increased risk of COVID.

  • They're even being discouraged from watching the Games in groups.

Inside the dome: During the sweaty, muggy opening ceremony, a large protest outside was audible inside the largely empty Olympic Stadium — all the more so during a moment of silence to honor those lost to COVID and those killed during the 1972 Games in Munich.

How we got here: It's been a logistical nightmare for the press and the few other attendees, who had to sift through a half-dozen glitch-prone apps and websites.

  • The precautions look more performative than protective. Now that we're here, we're forced to share crowded indoor spaces, including buses to the various venues, hotels and the main press center.

Read Ina's dispatch from the opening ceremony.

2. The reality show Olympics

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This year's Games have drifted from the usual mix of sports and drama into reality TV: There are plenty of cameras, no live audience — and even the citizens of Tokyo have to watch on TV, Ina also reports from Tokyo.

  • And, like with all reality TV shows, the contestants take the risks and the producers make the money.

How it works: Like "Survivor," contestants' performance in the on-screen competition is only a part of the adventure. Athletes have had to navigate tons of added rules and procedures to take part in the Games.

  • Also like "Survivor," how well you do in your challenge is only one of the factors that could lead an athlete to get kicked off the island.

Behind the scenes: While the venues were designed for fans, their absence makes giant stadiums feel like overly elaborate sets.

  • A bear wandered onto the softball field in Fukushima an hour before the first game there. But maybe loose bears are just what the sport needs to draw bigger crowds. (I love softball, but I am the only reporter on the bus to the stadium in Yokohama as I write this.)
  • At a softball game I attended Saturday in Yokohama, protesters outside Yokohama Baseball Stadium weren't just opposed to these Games but the Olympics in general. "Abolish Olympics" read one sign, while another proclaimed: "Olympics kill the poor."
  • Organizers are scrambling to reschedule events due to a potential tropical storm or even typhoon that could hit early this week, with a number of rowing matches moved up to Sunday from Monday.

One nonreality thing: The doves released at the opening ceremony were made of foam.

3. Exclusive poll: America's divide over the COVID Olympics
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Data: Momentive; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Americans are split on whether the Olympics should even be happening while Tokyo is still in a coronavirus state of emergency, according to a new Axios/Momentive poll.

The big picture: Most believe we're going to end with a bunch of sick athletes, Axios' David Nather and Margaret Talev report.

Between the lines: Like so many other aspects of the pandemic, partisan politics has deeply shaped perceptions about the risks of this year's Olympics.

  • Six in 10 respondents said athletes should be required to be vaccinated to compete in the Olympics. Democrats were twice as likely to say so (84%) as Republicans (41%), with independents (57%) in the middle.
  • Only 54% of Republicans believe an outbreak among athletes is likely, compared with 81% of Democrats.

By the numbers: Just 47% of Americans surveyed think it's a good idea to go ahead with the Summer Olympics — but that disapproval is largely being driven by Democrats, while Republicans and independents narrowly support the decision to hold the Games.

  • There's also a big difference by age: Younger adults are more likely to approve than older adults.
4. The post-Phelps Olympics

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For the first time since 2004, the face of Team USA at the Olympics won't be Michael Phelps, who retired from swimming in 2016, Axios sports editor Kendall Baker reports.

Why it matters: With the most decorated Olympian of all time no longer anchoring coverage and driving attention, a new crop of American stars will emerge in Tokyo.

Who to watch: If anyone has already replaced Phelps as the face of Team USA, it's gymnastics G.O.A.T. Simone Biles. Three other members of Team USA who could see their fame skyrocket in Tokyo:

  • Katie Ledecky, swimming: The defending gold medalist in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle is even better in the 1,500, which makes its Olympics debut on the women's side.
  • Noah Lyles, track and field: The Alexandria, Va., native is the favorite to win gold in the 200 meters after recording the world's fastest time this season (19.74 seconds).
  • Caleb Dressel, swimming: Phelps' heir apparent, the 24-year-old is favored in all three of his individual events. Add in four relays and he's got a shot at seven gold medals, which would tie Mark Spitz for second-most in a single Olympics (behind Phelps' eight).
5. The gender near-parity Olympics
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Data: IOC. Chart: Connor Rothschild/Axios
6. The new faces of Olympics coverage

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Cy Cyr/PGA Tour via Getty Images

A new(ish) face will be leading NBC's prime-time coverage: veteran sportscaster Mike Tirico, Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: It's Tirico's first run as prime-time host for the Summer Olympics. Legendary broadcaster Bob Costas hosted 12 Olympic Games between 1988 and 2016 for NBC before handing over the prime-time spot to Tirico in 2018.

Tirico's role is just one of the changes viewers can expect to see in this year's Summer Olympics coverage.

  • One familiar face that's new to the Olympics will be MSNBC political data guru Steve Kornacki. He will help Tirico and other hosts analyze data in real time, like Olympic medal counts, scores, records and more.
  • Other prominent people will join as special correspondents for NBC, including skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, figure skating gold medalist Tara Lipinski, and Olympic figure skater and television commentator Johnny Weir.

How it works: Tirico is one of the most versatile sports broadcasters in the world, but in an interview with Axios, he said the Olympics "requires much more knowledge of history and preparation than covering a professional sports event."

  • "When calling a game, you do as deep a dive as possible on the two teams competing," he said. "The Olympics have approximately 11,000 athletes and over 200 nations, so a deep dive like football preparation is impractical and as prime-time host unnecessary."
7. The robot Olympics

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Toyota

With no spectators allowed, robots might be some of the only witnesses to the athletic feats at this year's Summer Games, Joann Muller reports.

  • There'll be lifelike mascot robots, Miraitowa and Someity ... Toyota's T-TR2 telepresence robot, allowing people to connect remotely ... and field support robots to help retrieve the discus and javelin.
  • Olympic staff will use Panasonic's "power-assist suits" backstage at the venues and Olympic Village to unload and transport heavy objects.

What to watch: There's a chance other assistive robots sidelined for the Olympics — like machines that deliver food and beverages to spectators — could still be used at the Tokyo Paralympics, which start Aug. 24.

🛹 Check out our constantly updated Axios Olympics Dashboard, including "5 events to watch" and "3 things that happened."

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